OKC vs. DAL Preview – Setting the Tone Early

Earlier in the week, Serge Ibaka was guarding a traditional, back-to-the-basket center in Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets. On Sunday, he’ll be marking a player whose style is nearly completely opposite in the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki.

Ibaka’s versatility as a defender is a crucial aspect of the Thunder’s defensive success. Head Coach Scott Brooks calls on his long, athletic forward to check players of all varieties, in addition to putting him in positions to switch on screens at the top of the key. In one possession he could be guarding a seven-footer, then moving his feet to stay in front of a shifty point guard. Every night is a different challenge, but the flexible Ibaka is always up for it.

“Serge is really understanding that,” Brooks said. “He still has work there to improve in it. He has definitely improved in that are and tomorrow night he’s guarding one of the best in the league at making shots.

Nowitzki can operate on the block, in the paint and from mid-range, but where he is most dangerous is on the perimeter in transition. A focal point for Ibaka on Sunday will be to find Nowitzki in transition and prevent him from being able to step into a three-point shot when trailing the ball-handler. Even though Ibaka’s natural instincts are to prevent opponents from getting easy shots at the rim, he’ll also have to be aware of Nowitzki’s shooting ability.

“That’s one of the hardest things for all bigs,” Brooks explained. “You’re so programmed to get back, protect the basket and get into the paint. When you’re guarding a trailing big that shoots threes, you have to be cognizant of that. I think Serge has done a better job of that because you can’t relax on him.”

The other four members of the Thunder’s defense will also need to be locked in, including rookie Andre Roberson, who will make his sixth career start. The Thunder is 5-0 this season when the rangy guard is in the starting lineup. With Thabo Sefolosha sidelined with an injury, Roberson has solicited the help of veterans like Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Derek Fisher. Veteran leadership on this Thunder squad always helps ensure that teammates are on the same page, so that less experienced players like Roberson are always up to speed.

“Everybody gives me bits and pieces of advice,” Roberson said. “I talk to (Thabo) all the time about different things defensive-wise and offensive-wise.”

In the Notes:

- The Thunder is 1-0 against the Mavericks this season, and overall is 12-7 against Dallas in the regular season.

- The Thunder is 22-4 this season when it shoots above 50 percent from the field

- The Thunder is 18-4 when it makes ten-or-more steals in a game this year

Broadcast Info:

6:00 p.m. CT. TV – Fox Sports Oklahoma; Radio – 98.1 FM The Sports Animal, Thunder Radio Network